Autistic Book Party, Episode 31: Marginalia to Stone Bird

Today’s Book: “Marginalia to Stone Bird”, a poetry collection by Rose Lemberg

Autistic Character(s): The author.

I am going to try to write this review in a way that isn’t just jumping up and down and squeeing, because quite apart from the issue of being autistic, Lemberg is one of my favourite speculative poets ever and “Marginalia to Stone Bird” is their debut collection. And although I write poetry I do not think I am very good at reviewing it in detail, but I will try.

“Marginalia to Stone Bird” is a collection of speculative poems (almost entirely fantasy, with a single sci-fi scenario thrown in). The topics of the poems progress from magic realism firmly set in the real world, to folktales and love stories in fairytale-like settings, to the mythic, epic Journeymaker Cycle that dominates the last third. All of them are written in the lush, ornate language that is Lemberg’s trademark:

Give me of these fine threads that sing with indigo and weld,
I’ll make them into a carpet of my hurts,
knot them into a desert alive with Bird’s burning,
I’ll weave—with undyed wool and spidersilk—
the bones out of their hiding places.

This kind of language will not be to everyone’s taste. But I love it, and the ornateness is never at the expense of making sense. The poems also play off each other well enough that reading some will provide useful context for others; many, for instance, are set in the same world, Birdverse (also the setting of “Grandmother Nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds“, “The Book of How to Live“, “The Desert Glassmaker and the Jeweler of Berevyar“, and “Geometries of Belonging“).

Lemberg’s poetry is very socially aware. The first third of the book, mainly magic realism, is centered firmly in the experience of oppression in the real world: immigration, faith and doubt, war, a failing marriage. The middle section translates these oppressions to the fantasy realm: its heroes are exploited peasants, abandoned women, unwanted people whose surroundings and cultures never treat them particularly well. (At least one is trans.) The Journeymaker Cycle, in the final third, makes this awareness both larger and more inward. It’s a winding story that unfolds across multiple lifetimes, in which its reincarnated heroes struggle with the use and abuse of their power, taking refuge in powerlessness and then eventually needing to reclaim power; in which they try to use their power to help, and help many, but also run up dramatically short against the limits of that ability. (Readers who liked the healing-and-consent themes in “Geometries of Belonging” will be fascinated by the additional complexity that they take on in the poem “Long Shadow”.) The shorter, more magical realist poems of the final third also play off of these themes, presenting a narrator who is afraid of their own power, afraid to speak or create, and yet who feels inevitably drawn to creation.

There is a theme of doubling that recurs throughout the work, most obviously in one of its early poems, “The Three Immigrations”. While a real-world character moves from country to country in fraught and desparate circumstances, other characters in a surreal and mythic world do the same. Characters in “Marginalia to Stone Bird” are mirrored by their counterparts in other worlds, by ghosts, by other identities with other genders sharing their body, by the people they were in past lives. The fantastical is always present, even in what would seem to be a very unvarnished real-world scene – and the difficult, complex social and emotional webs that constrain people’s actions in the real world are never quite absent, either, even at the collection’s wildest and most mythic.

If anyone tells you that autistic people cannot imagine whole worlds with attendant mythology, or create beautiful phrases, or imagine other people’s lives, or write about complex social situations movingly and with empathy – point them at this poetry collection, please.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Ethics statement: Rose Lemberg is someone I consider a fairly close friend. I asked for an electronic review copy of this collection and was given one for free. All opinions expressed here are my own.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 30 And A Half: Short Story Smorgasbord – Award Edition!

Today I’m going to do something a little bit special. I worried that, by separating my Recommended stories into Recommended-1 (for stories with autistic characters, regardless of author) and Recommended-2 (for stories by autistic authors with no autistic characters in them), I would be somehow ghettoizing the work of autistic authors. Instead, I feel freer and more excited about reviewing stories that would go in the Recommended-2 category. I’m no longer putting pressure on myself to justify why these works are as relevant to Autism Issues as the Recommended-1 stories; I can let them be their own, good, thing.

In this spirit, I want to review four short works by autistic authors that are up for awards this year. Let’s celebrate some autistic award nominees!

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Rose Lemberg, “The Ash Manifesto” (Strange Horizons, October 10, 2016)

[Autistic author] A powerful poem about personal strength (and un-strength), written in gorgeous, mythic words. “The Ash Manifesto” was one of my favourite speculative poems of 2016, and is one of two poems of Lemberg’s to be nominated for the Rhysling award this year. [Recommended-2]

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A. Merc Rustad, “This Is Not A Wardrobe Door” (Fireside, January 2016)

[Autistic author] A 2016 Nebula finalist, this is a subversive take on portal fantasies in which two friends in different worlds attempt to fix the malfunctioning portal that is keeping them apart. It’s a short, sweet tale with a firm emphasis on the value of community and connection, and some gorgeous, surreal descriptions. There is also some minor, but nice, queer content. [Recommended-2]

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A.J. Odasso – “Nothing Goes Away” (The New England Review of Books, November 30, 2016)

[Autistic author] A poem that uses beautiful language to describe a moment of inaccuracy by a doctor, and the sheer density of thought that can occur in a moment in response. I don’t know if this poem is autobiographical, but it is certainly meant to be read as the experience of an autistic person who is similar to the author, and it succeeds at that. It is one of three poems of Odasso’s that are nominated for the Rhysling award this year. [Recommended-1]

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Bogi Takacs, “Marginalia on Eiruvin 45b” (Bracken, issue ii)

[Autistic author] A poem about a character, like some of Takács’ fictional protagonists, who accumulates intense levels of magical power in their body and has to learn to let some of it go. (Eiruvin 45b is a verse from the Talmud, which, as far as Google can tell me, has to do with movement and water – but you don’t have to be a Talmudic scholar to understand the basic events in the poem and appreciate the way they are described.) “Marginalia” is a Rhysling nominee this year in the short category. [Recommended-2]

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Of course I cannot review my own work, but just to round out the set, I will note here that my own short poem, “The Giantess’s Dream“, has also been nominated for this year’s Rhyslings.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 30: This Other World

Today’s Book: “This Other World” by A.C. Buchanan

Autistic Character(s): Vonika, a human woman living in an alien country.

I have decided that, while novelettes can go under Short Story Smorgasbord, novellas deserve a full Autistic Book Party episode. “This Other World” was first published in the anthology Winter Well, but has since then been self-published as a standalone. On many platforms (I used Kobo), the self-published version is available for free.

Vonika is the protagonist of “This Other World”. She’s a human living among the aliens of the city-state Temia. Like many real-life autistic humans who move to another country, Vonika finds that in some ways, she is more accepted among aliens: her strange behaviors are thought of as a foreigner’s quirks instead of being pathologized. Her autism isn’t her only reason for feeling at home on Temia. Vonika excels in a career (architectural engineering) that is needed on Temia, and has a warm, stable romantic relationship with a Temian woman.

As a menopausal woman, Vonika will soon undergo a Temian rite of passage called Ha-Ran, in which older adults become telepathically connected to each other and enter a more communal life. But Vonika’s transition may not be going according to plan. She’s beginning to experience bursts of telepathic perception, even though she hasn’t yet ingested the drugs that cause Ha-Ran to occur. And war is breaking out between Temia and one of its neighboring countries – a war Temia is likely to lose.

“This Other World” is not “about” autism, but Vonika’s autism is well-drawn, consistently coloring her reactions to people, events, and her surroundings without becoming a replacement for agency. Vonika has an aversion to crowds, bright colors, and shallow social pleasantries; a factual, detail-oriented thinking style; and a phenomenal memory for architectural detail. Her way of thinking is described matter-of-factly through most of the story, with a light touch and an occasional hint of dry humor:

She tells half-truths of loyalty and determination. Says she needs to show faith in her new home. That she doesn’t give up when things get tough. There are, of course, elements of truth in all of these, but telling the whole story would make her sound ridiculous, unbalanced even. I don’t like change is not generally considered a strong reason for staying in a war zone.

In the hands of a clumsy NT author, the temptation to make Vonika’s autism the major conflict in a story like this would be irresistible. The story would end up being all about the supposed contrast between autism and telepathy, and the inner conflict that this causes for the character. Happily, Buchanan avoids this trope. Ha-Ran, even if it works for humans, won’t fundamentally alter who Vonika is. While she does feel some minor reluctance, it’s only because does not like change, and is relatively easily dealt with. Meanwhile, she gets a plot full of other interesting things to do, a war to survive, and a mystery to solve – because she is not the only one experiencing early Ha-Ran, and as the war progresses, the number of cases is increasing.

Spoiling the solution to this mystery would be unfair, but I found the solution one of the most satisfying parts of the novella. It’s something that sheds an interesting light on human ideas about empathy and belonging, and about empathy as the primary cause of morality – ideas which are often used to paint autistic people as inherently inferior – and about what those ideas can, and can’t, actually solve.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 29: Experimental Film

Today’s Book: “Experimental Film” by Gemma Files

The Plot: Lois Cairns, a Canadian film critic, stumbles upon an antique film that could make her career – but the film’s supernatural connections prove to be more than she bargained for.

Autistic Character(s): Several, as described below.

“Experimental Film” is a complicated book. It’s a horror novel, to get that out of the way; it’s a book in which people are messed up and bad things happen to them. The most obvious autistic character, mentioned in the back cover copy, is Lois’s son Clark. Clark is a whirlwind of energy who speaks mostly in echolalia, but before we talk much about him, I want to talk about Lois.

Lois begins the novel in a fairly traditional posture, for an autism parent – exasperated and worried by her child, pessimistic about his prognosis, and generally stressed and exhausted. The first scenes in which Clark appears are difficult to get through, because of some of Lois’s negative mental comments about him. But the scenes also introduce a complication that the back cover didn’t mention:

But my version of fucked up was never going to be enough like his to help us meet in the middle; I come from the other end of the spectrum. And I remember sitting next to my mom, going down the list of Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis points one by one, showing her how much they reminded me of how I’d been as a child, an adolescent, before socialization kicked the worst of it out of me. “Little Professor Syndrome,” check. Rabid enthusiasms, check. Inability to converse without monologizing, check. Vocabulary far exceeding normal age standards, check. Frustration, check. Inability to form friendships, check. Violent tantrums, check. Self-harm, check. Check, check, check.
“Don’t you see?” I asked her. “This is why this happened. Because I’m just like him, except it’s all on the inside.”
She looked at me then with what might have been sympathy, but what I read (at the time) as contempt, the way I’m prone to do. Because – another check – I’ve never really been able to tell what other people are thinking just by looking at their faces, unless their faces are up on a movie screen.
“Come on, Lois,” she said. “It’s bad enough as it is. Don’t try to make this all about you.

What the book shows about Lois confirms that she is, in fact, autistic. She is fixed and fanatical in her interests. She comes of to other characters as strange, prickly, difficult to deal with. She is easily overwhelmed, shutting down and dissociating under stress. She is confused about human motivation, or sometimes fails to take it into account at all. Lois’s narrative voice is not the stereotyped “autism voice”, but it is a voice full of intense detail, dense information, frequent asides to passionately explain something – a voice that rings very true to me, as an autistic person.

So – this is important. “Experimental Film” is marketed as a book about an Autism Parent, but it’s actually a book about more than one autistic person. Lois – low-support, depressed, passing for abled, and additionally disabled with more than one form of chronic pain – experiences her autism in one way. Clark, who at this point in his life cannot possibly pass, experiences it in another, and Lois doesn’t always know how to deal with him appropriately, any more than an NT mother would.

Lois does several things right. She never denies her child’s humanity or devalues his life. There’s no mention of ABA or any other abusive therapy. Lois consistently pushes back against people, including her own mother, who suggest that Clark should simply be trained to parrot the correct response. She knows very well that Clark needs to be accepted for who he is, and is extremely critical of her own failures to do that.

Because Lois does fail in many ways. She barely pays attention to Clark for the first hundred pages of the book. She says negative things in front of him that she assumes he will not understand. (And is called on it – rightly – by her husband Simon, a very sweet and patient man who seems to do most of the childcare.) Clark is shown being clearly affectionate to both parents, but Lois insists that she cannot know he loves her, that his echolalic statements about it somehow don’t count the way they do when they’re directed at Simon. Her general pattern with Clark is one of distance:

But I have to protect myself, first and foremost: not from him, but from my own… disappointment in him, over things he can’t even help… I have to keep myself just far enough apart from him to be able to love him at all, knowing it’ll never be as much as he deserves to be loved. And that’s not because he’s broken, no. Not at all.
That’s because I am.

Did I mention Lois is depressed? Lois is really depressed. She is consistently even more critical of herself as a person than she deserves. She is also so consumed with interest in her work – which is, of course, an autistic trait – that she barely has patience for anything else. She consistently pushes herself hard enough that it actively worsens her pain, her sleep patterns, and her relationships with her family. And that’s before the supernatural horror aspect of the novel kicks into high gear.

When we try to think of good representation, we are so often thinking of role models. Lois is not that. She’s also not a stereotype, not a plot device, not a supercrip or Evil Disabled Person. She’s a flawed, complex, breathing human whose flaws and complexity are fully portrayed. She is not sugarcoated, and once I got used to her level of internalized ableism – “A defective person, raising a defective child“, as she calls herself at one point – I appreciated that.

(I’m reminded of a Short Story Smorgasbord I did a while back, when I said that I didn’t object to having unlikeable autistic protagonists, I just didn’t think the one in that particular story was done well. I guess it’s time to put my money where my mouth was: Lois is an unlikeable autistic protagonist, done right.)

I mentioned supernatural horror. The vintage film Lois discovered was made a century earlier, by a woman named Iris Dunlopp Whitcomb, whose life strongly parallels Lois’s. Both are subtly autistic, depressed women, possessed by an intense vocation, and struggling to care for an autistic son. Iris’s son Hyatt is described in obviously autistic terms, but the references to Iris’s autism go by so quick you could almost miss them:

“People understood,” Moraine said. “They knew she had more than enough on her plate to deal with already. She was eccentric, sad – special, just like her boy.”

So that makes four autistic characters. (Lois suggests at one point that Simon is also on or close to the spectrum. I’m not sure about that one.) But Iris Dunlopp Whitcomb’s life is also haunted by a spectre known as Lady Midday – a murderous god demanding worship from anyone unfortunate enough to look at her.

We are first introduced to Lady Midday in a fairy tale: she approaches people out working in the fields at noon, and questions them. The way to survive an encounter with Lady Midday, according to the tale, is to be humble and courteous, to insist that you are happy working, to refuse all offers of rest or water – and, above all, to avoid looking at her. As in many fairy tales, characters who behave properly are rewarded. Characters who fail get their heads cut off.

Iris sees her compulsive art-making as work assigned to her by Lady Midday, work she cannot stop. We find out later in the book that Lady Midday was actually worshipped, pre-WWI, by certain European villages. They, like Iris, see her as gifting certain individuals with work assignments that they can never stop, no matter how long they live. These villagers would also perform human sacrifices in Lady Midday’s honor, burying alive their elderly parents and “changeling” children. Sacrificing, in other words, the disabled to her.

(I have to break in at this point. I was VERY WORRIED that this novel was going to go the child-murder route. It does not. Murdering disabled children is mentioned, briefly, as a thing that people did in the historical past. But that’s all. At no point in the book is any named character tempted to be violent to their child.)

Lady Midday is an elusive figure, one who defies precise definition – after all, that would be looking at her. But inasmuch as it’s possible to assign meaning to her, I can’t help but view Lady Midday as an avatar of ableism. She predates capitalism, but she personifies the capitalist view in which a person is only a vector for work. One only has worth if one is working, without end, hiding and denying whatever toll it might take. In which the people who cannot do this work might as well be dead.

Lois, a driven Aspie longing for professional recognition, hating herself for human weakness, pushing incessantly past her health problems, and terrified of how her colleagues will treat her if she falters, is perfectly positioned to fall under this spell. She is also perfectly positioned to thwart Lady Midday, in the end – not by abandoning her work, but by radically reconsidering what is important to her as she does it.

As for Clark, he’s not given the detailed treatment that he would have if he were the protagonist. There’s a limit to what can be shown of him given that the entire novel is written in the POV of his mother, whose statements about Clark are often unreliable. Within those limits, though, Files shows us strong hints of who he is as a person. Clark is enthusiastic, affectionate, and quite loud; his speech is almost entirely echolalic, but a meaning can frequently be discerned. His role in the plot is not particularly active: he’s first a distraction from Lois’s work, then a source of eerie foreshadowing, then a child actively endangered by supernatural phenomena, before he finally returns to a Lois who has learned to appreciate him a little more. I might have liked to see more agency from Clark, but given that he is a child, and given the kind of story he is in, I really don’t know if anything could realistically be changed.

Reading this book and talking about it with a few of my friends, I’m struck by how little we have in the way of language for people like Lois. The abusively ableist “Warrior Mother” schema is not appropriate for her. But we have very little language for her in the autism self-advocacy movement, either. We pay lip service to the idea that autistic people can be autism parents. But in practice, we tend to assume that a given parent is either for us or against us. We don’t make a lot of space to discuss autistic parents’ internalized ableism, overload, social pressure, conflicting support needs, or the many other factors that can make parenting a challenge – even for someone who intimately understands the spectrum and is not at all interested in excuses for abusing their child.

“Experimental Film” begins to create such a space, not by making Lois a role model or by talking about what she ought to do, but by letting her struggle. By showing the struggle in unapologetically intimate detail – and by showing Lois, by the end of the story, begin to make small steps forward.

“Experimental Film” is a book about multiple flawed and struggling autistic people whose lives catastrophically intersect. It is a book in which ableism is literally the villain. It shows the very ugly ways in which internalized ableism poisons our working lives, (paradoxically) our health, our ability to treat other disabled people properly, our relationships with the people who matter most to us, and our relationships with ourselves. It sugarcoats nothing. But it shows, in the end – without any quick or magic fixes – characters beginning to learn that there is another way.

The very ugliness of the internalized ableism, especially in early chapters, will make this a book that not every autistic reader can stomach. But for others, “Experimental Film” may be the book that they didn’t even know how desparately they needed.

The Verdict: Recommended

(Thanks are due to Rose Lemberg in particular, and also to Elizabeth Bartmess, A.C. Buchanan, and Bogi Takács, for a conversation that helped me solidify my thoughts about this book. All opinions expressed here are solely my own.)

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 29 And Three Quarters: Short Story Smorgasbord

Lesley L. Smith, “Bologna and Vanilla” (Daily Science Fiction, December 2014)
[Autistic author] A first contact flash story in which lexical-gustatory synesthesia helps the protagonist understand alien speech. I thought that the synesthesia was a bit simplistically handled, compared to Luna Lindsey’s “Touch of Tides”, which has a similar premise. But we can always use more stories in which thinking or sensing differently from other people is the key to success. [YMMV, but I liked it]
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A.C. Buchanan, “Invisible City” (self-published, February 2015)
[Autistic author] A novelette about a man traumatized by his experiences in a country which, because of magic, no longer exists. There are no autistic characters here, but it’s a very good story about memory, dictatorship, rebellion, and the human tendency to pretend that terrible things never happened. This makes it, strangely, more timely now than it was at the time of its release. [Recommended]
*
An Owomoyela, “Unauthorized Access” (Lightspeed, September 2016)
A young woman named Aedo is let out of jail for hacking – and immediately gets sucked into another, even more dangerous hacking project. It’s subtle at first, but I definitely read Aedo as an Aspie due to repeated mentions of her social awkwardness, dislike of eye contact, preference for expressing herself by typing, etc. I really like that the story centers someone who can talk, but has an easier time writing, and that it shows how difficult that is to explain to other people without implying that it is therefore somehow bad or wrong. I also enjoyed the subversively realistic portrayal of hacker culture, and the way the tension ratchets up as Aedo realizes she’s being used. [Recommended]
*
Bogi Takács, “Good People in a Small Space” (free Patreon reward, December 2016)
[Autistic author] A very short, very cute story set in the same universe as Bogi’s Iwunen Interstellar Investigations web serial. Several people from Eren, a planet of autistic people, feature prominently in the story. The viewpoint character, while not autistic, does a good job respectfully adjusting their behavior to make their interactions more comfortable for the Ereni. There are also some adorably polite negotiations around pain, and some ARTISINAL LOGIC PUZZLES. [Recommended]
*
Merc Rustad, “Monster Girls Don’t Cry” (Uncanny, January 2017)
[Autistic author] A horror story about monsters and the people who try to make them “normal”, with and without their consent. There are no autistic characters, but autistic readers (among others) will relate very hard to the themes of social pressure, closeting, and forced normalization. Please take the content warning at the top of the story seriously – and considering the number of autistic readers who have trauma related to this, there should also be a content warning for non-consensual medical treatment / surgery. It’s all sensitively handled, though, and there is a well-earned happy ending. [Recommended]

Autistic Book Party, Episode 28 And A Half: Short Story Smorgasbord

Pat Murphy, “Inappropriate Behavior” (scifi.com, 2004; reprinted in Escape Pod)

A young autistic girl named Annie remotely operates a mining robot on a deserted island. After a storm, a shipwrecked man washes up on the island needing assistance, but the adults working with Annie may be too preoccupied giving her therapy to listen to what she says about him.

I thought that this was a really clever story. Annie’s point of view is well written, distinctively autistic, and believable. The remote operation technology and its effects on her senses are very interesting, and the critique of NT therapists is so on point that it hurts. A few sections felt like they over-explained about what autism is, but this was probably necessary in order to make sure NT readers understood the story, especially in 2004, and most sections are not like this. I also wish that some attention had been paid to the potentially exploitative relationship between Annie and the mining company. Some of what she does in the mining robot is profitable for them, despite being classed as “therapy”, but the conflict of interest between their profit and Annie’s wellbeing is not addressed. Overall, though, the story is enjoyable and effectively accomplishes what it sets out to do. [Recommended]

*

George R. Galuschak, “Counting Cracks” (Strange Horizons, November 2011)

A strange alien noise invades Earth, killing or disabling most people, and a small band of mostly-autistic survivors sets out to deal with it at the source. I found this story difficult to follow, and some details were confusingly wrong. (For example, in the narrator’s backstory, his counting-related compulsions just… suddenly go away one day, and his sympathy for other people who think that way evaporates just as quickly.) However, I appreciated the story’s overall message, in which embracing autistic symptoms instead of suppressing them is the key to victory – and the characters continue to do so long after the victory is won. [YMMV]

*

Bogi Takács, “All Talk of Common Sense” (Polychrome Ink Volume III, May 2016)

[Autistic author] A flash story about an autistic court jester who discovers a deception from the court mage. The trope of disabled people becoming jesters, and using their disability to parody more powerful people, is well known. I like how the disability in this one – and the social prejudice it brings – is made plain without exoticizing. [Recommended]

*

Edward Willett, “I Count the Lights” (Strangers Among Us, August 2016)

A diplomat needs to solve a murder on an alien planet, but the only one who can help him is an intellectually disabled alien. The alien’s neurotype is considered holy on their planet, but the diplomat takes an immediate dislike to him.

I was on the fence about whether to include this story in Autistic Book Party. It features both the aforementioned alien and a human with a similar disability, which might be autism (rocking, repetitive behavior, and difficulty with complex language) or might be another developmental disability. I decided to err on the side of inclusion.

The story is well told, and the diplomat learns over the course of the story to value both of the disabled character’s contributions. Unfortunately, the main reason why he learns this is because both of the characters prove useful to him in solving the mystery, and his action in response to this is to… graciously allow them to continue being useful to him. Considering that, and the POV character’s initially very strong ableism, I wasn’t super thrilled with the contribution of the story overall. [YMMV, but I didn’t like it]

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Helen Stubbs, “Uncontainable” (Apex Magazine, December 2016)

A barely-communicative little girl prone to violent meltdowns is the only one who understands a terrible secret. This story echoes some aspects of changeling folklore, but with a nice twist. Someone is stealing children’s souls, but the disabled child is not the victim of this stealing nor an inferior replacement for a stolen child. Instead she becomes the one who bravely saves the other children around her, even though the adults don’t understand. I liked that aspect of the story, but was less pleased with some other aspects, including the final scene, which seems to cement the girl’s role as an all-purpose knowing-terrible-things plot device rather than providing a logical reason why she would have known what was going on. [YMMV]

Autistic Book Party, Episode 28: The Three-Body Problem

Today’s Book: “The Three-Body Problem” by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu.

The Plot: A mysterious online game invites humans to explore the lives of aliens living in a trinary star system, and factions emerge on Earth with various attitudes towards the real aliens who might be behind the game.

Autistic Character(s): Wei Cheng, a member of one of the factions.

Wei Cheng occupies a brief but important role in Liu’s Hugo-winning novel. He shows up midway through and tells his life story to the viewpoint characters in order to explain a point. He’s the husband of another researcher in one of the factions. He’s reclusive, and is shown having difficulty with activities such as personal grooming, face recognition, creation of appropriate facial affect, knowing when to stop talking, and executive function. It’s the executive function, combined with flattened emotions, that cause him to identify, not as autistic, but as “lazy”:

I’ve been lackadaisical since I was a kid. When I lived at boarding school, I never washed the dishes or made the bed. I never got excited about anything. Too lazy to study, too lazy to even play, I dawdled my way through the days without any clear goals.

The way Wei Cheng describes himself is actually really interesting to me. Of course I am familiar with autistic people who are described as lazy, and who internalize that description. But the way Wei Cheng centers “laziness” throughout his narrative is something I had not encountered before. It strikes me, not just as internalized ableism on his part (although it is), but as a whole different way of looking at how his neurotype works and at what the central deficits are, compared to neurotypical people. I suspect that this is due to Wei Cheng being from a non-Western culture (the book is set in China) but I don’t really know enough to say that for sure.

Despite his “laziness”, Wei Cheng is gifted at mathematics. He struggles in math classes because he cannot explain his intuitive ways of solving problems, but even very advanced problems come easily to him. After earning a PhD, he has difficulty with the non-mathematical aspects of the jobs he is qualified for and drifts around until he meets his future wife, who welcomes him into her secret faction so that he can help solve the three-body problem.

Wei Cheng’s role in the plot confuses me a little. On my first read, he struck me as an autistic person who had been inserted as a plot device. He shows up, tells his life story, suggests solving the three-body problem with an evolutionary algorithm, reports on some ominous events, and then does very little else. But his big scene isn’t even really a plot device, because it isn’t crucial to what else happens in the rest of the book.

A reviewer who is familiar with modern Chinese culture and its view of neurodiversity might have better insight into Wei Cheng than I do (and I would welcome comments in that vein in the comment section!) In the absence of that, I find him a puzzling but interesting minor character who, despite his internalized ableism, is not really badly portrayed.

The Verdict: Marginal

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 27 And A Half: Short Story Smorgasbord

Kythryne Aisling, “quiet hands” (inkscrawl Issue 10, August 2016)

The title of this poem is a catchphrase commonly used by educators who try to stop autistic and other special needs children from moving around. The poem will be relatable to autistic people who have experienced coercive medication and attempts to extinguish stims. [YMMV, but I liked it]

*

Bogi Takács, “Toward the Luminous Towers” (Clarkesworld, August 2016)

[Autistic author] A story about a non-neurotypical person with immense magical power who is coercively drafted into a war effort. (Bogi’s story notes confirm that the protagonist is autistic.) This is a well-written but difficult story; there is a great deal of abuse and coercion, and the ending could be mistaken for suicide by a careless reader. Readers who are put off by this content might want to wait for later installments in the series, which according to the story notes will be more cheerful in tone, and in which autism will play a greater role in the plot. [YMMV, but I liked it]

*

Rose Lemberg, “The Book of How to Live” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #209, September 2016)

[Autistic author] A story about a magicless autistic artificer in a magical world, and the beginnings of a revolution. Efronia’s autism is downplayed but recognizeable, particularly in her confusion over people’s motivations and in a period of sensory overwhelm she has towards the end of the story. She is a patient, steadfast person, which is a nice thing I don’t see often enough. The story overall is political in a very good way. [Recommended]

*

Julie Nováková, “Becoming” (Persistent Visions, October 21, 2016)

A story about a woman who becomes the mind of a space station, then is “rescued” and pressured to assimilate back into normal human life by other humans. Ana’s neurotype is written to closely resemble autism, although it’s unclear to me if she was always autistic or if this is somehow a consequence of having been a space station for a long time. (Her synesthesia and physical disability certainly predate her transformation.) Neurotypical society never really gets around to respecting Ana’s autonomy or ability to choose, even when they offer her old position back to her again – but Ana still triumphs by staying true to her own chosen values. [Recommended]

*

Amanda Sun, “What Harm” (Strangers Among Us, August 2016)

A non-speaking autistic boy named Colin is sold to an evil overlord and unexpectedly becomes the overlord’s undoing. This is a cool idea for a story and might have been enjoyable in different hands, but I was very distracted, alienated, and frustrated by the writing style. Colin is constantly othered by the narration in a variety of ways, even when it makes no sense to do so. I suspect that this may have been intentional on the author’s part, an attempt at ironic contrast between the way Colin is described and what he is actually capable of, but it really didn’t work for me. Colin’s deeds effectively undermine other characters’ claims that he is incapable of intentionally affecting anything, but many other ableist aspects of how he is described in the narration remain unchallenged. A well-intentioned attempt that left a bad taste in my mouth. [Not Recommended]

Autistic Book Party, Episode 27: Defying Doomsday

I’m going to be doing something a little different today, reviewing an anthology – Short Story Smorgasbord-style – rather than a novel.

The stories in “Defying Doomsday” revolve around a deceptively simple question: what happens to disabled people when civilization ends? Post-apocalyptic literature too often either assumes that we will die – that an apocalypse reduces humanity to “survival of the fittest”, and that disabled people are by definition unfit – or forgets to chart our place in the narrative at all. “Defying Doomsday” consciously takes a different view, showing us disabled people’s stories in the apocalypse, centering their humanity and their desire to survive, even if the ability to do so is in doubt (and while it’s dire for everyone, it’s not always as dire for disabled people as one might assume).

The whole anthology covers a broad spectrum of different disabilities and is well worth a read, even though the grim subject matter can sometimes make it a difficult one. Four stories in the anthology involve autistic characters and/or authors, so here at Autistic Book Party we will review the book by taking a closer look at these four.

*

Corinne Duyvis, “And the Rest of Us Wait” (Defying Doomsday, May 2016)

[Autistic author] Set in the same apocalyptic Netherlands as “On the Edge of Gone“, this story focuses on a different main character – not an autistic girl like Denise, but a refugee singer with spina bifida, whose name is Iveta. Unlike Denise, Iveta makes it to a temporary shelter, but things at the shelter start to go wrong, including a permanent loss of electrical power. The plot is less complex than the plot of the novel, but if anything, the ableism of people around Iveta and her uncertainty about her future are depicted with an even more brutal honesty. Iveta truly doesn’t know if she’ll survive, but she fiercely self-advocates and holds on to her humanity throughout. [Recommended]

*

Seanan McGuire, “Something in the Rain” (Defying Doomsday, May 2016)

(ETA: For an additional note about this story, see this post.)

A grimly amusing story in which a teenage girl with autism and schizophrenia is the good guy, a manipulative neurotypical bully is the bad guy, and the bad guy gets her comeuppance in the end. It’s drawn in very broad strokes, sometimes at the expense of psychological accuracy, which will bother some readers; the remorseless means by which the protagonist resolves her problems will bother others. On the whole, though, I found it a satisfying story which is emphatically on the autistic protagonist’s side. [YMMV, but I liked it]

*

Rivqa Rafael, “Two Somebodies Go Hunting” (Defying Doomsday, May 2016)

A story about a boy named Jeff and his physically disabled sister, Lex. I read Jeff as autistic due to a variety of factors which may or may not have been intended that way. I felt that Jeff’s autistic traits were appropriately varied, subtle (at times), and realistic. But I could have done with a bit less focus on Lex’s annoyance with him, even though it turns out to have a non-autism-related underlying reason in the end. [YMMV]

*

Bogi Takács, “Given Sufficient Desparation” (Defying Doomsday)

[Autistic author] Aliens have invaded and convinced some humans to work for them at menial tasks. Both the aliens and anti-alien resistance groups are ableist, but in different ways. The protagonist has motor dyspraxia which the author shares, and which limits their ability to fit in with either group. They end up stumbling onto a third option, but even this option may raise as many problems as it solves. An interesting story underscoring what happens when neither side of a conflict makes room for everyone. [Recommended]

Autistic Book Party, Episode 26 and a Half: Short Story Smorgasbord!

Gabriela Santiago, “They Jump Through Fires” (Black Candies: Surveillance, April 2015; reprinted in GlitterShip, September 2015)

A horror story about an autistic woman mourning the death of her girlfriend. The protagonist’s grief is described in a way that, to me, feels both distinctively autistic and realistically nuanced. There are sensory aspects, analytical aspects, philosophical aspects, and a strong undercurrent – implied more than explicitly described – of immense confusion and distress. This distress only intensifies as the horror plot progresses and the scene becomes a surreal nightmare: a nightmare which is no less haunting for its mathematical aspects. [Recommended]

*

Lynn Kilmore, “By the Numbers” (Crossed Genres Issue 31: Novelette, July 2015)

A story about a math-obsessed autistic professor who discovers that she can communicate with equally math-obsessed aliens. The story makes a point of including realistic details, such as the protagonist (Mel)’s sensory sensitivities and her anti-cure perspective. It also makes a point of sharing and validating Mel’s experience. That said, a few things about it didn’t work for me. Mel is portrayed as a very disagreeable person (and, frankly, a bad professor) in ways that have little to do with autism, but that could easily be conflated with it by an outsider. I’m not opposed to writing autistic protagonists who are disagreeable, but I don’t think this one is handled well. Additionally, mathematical sequences are thought to be one of the easiest ways for two sentient species to establish communication over a long distance, so it feels like a stretch when the other characters (including a physics professor!) conclude that the aliens must be “annoyingly obsessed” like Mel, rather than performing a logical and necessary first-contact protocol. This one tries, but doesn’t quite hit the mark for me. [YMMV]

*

Bogi Takács, “Skin the Creature” (Through the Gate, Issue 9, December 2015)

[Autistic author] This is a poem about seizing hold of life. While it’s not “about” autism, mentions of flailing movements and sensory intolerance suggest that its vivacity is a neurodivergent vivacity, one unbothered by its own intensity and oddness, unafraid of standing out, and eager for the next experience. [Recommended]

*

Rose Lemberg, “The Desert Glassmaker and the Jeweler of Berevyar” (Uncanny Magazine, Issue Eight, January 2016)

[Autistic author] A light, warm, and rather flowery long-distance love story set in Lemberg’s Birdverse world. I read one of the lead characters, Vadrai, as perhaps on the spectrum. She has anxiety, fear of crowds, preference for solitude, aptitude for work involving tiny details, and admitted lack of understanding of how to deal with people. (I also read both characters as demisexual.) These elements are backgrounded and perhaps debatable, which only makes the story more charming to me: we need more love stories involving (arguably) autistic people in which autism is not presented as a major barrier to the characters’ happiness together. [Recommended]

*

Merc Rustad, “Iron Aria” (Fireside, Issue 34, July 2016)

[Autistic author] I read the protagonist of this story, Kyru, as autistic because of his expressive speech difficulties and sensitivity to noise. Kyru also gets to be the typical bildungsroman-fantasy protagonist, leaving a home where his relatives underappreciate and misgender him, and traveling to a magical mountain where there are problems only Kyru’s abilities can fix. I especially appreciate the way Kyru’s sensory sensitivities and his magical abilities affect each other, without being at all conflated. An ominous but hopeful story in which an autistic trans hero comes into his own. [Recommended]